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T O P I C R E V I E W
Posted - 10/26/2006 : 11:04:56The Invitation
The doorbell rang late one afternoon. I opened the door and found a white envelope a messenger had placed on the floor mat. It was an invitation for dinner that evening. In classic Bristol, the card gave the address and the time without further indication. I looked at the back to see if there was any mention of the host, a phone number, an RSVP? Nada!
After a shower and a fresh shave, I jumped into a tailored black suit; sprayed some of my favorite cologne; checked whether my tie matched the rest; dropped some visit cards inside my pocket and I was ready for what I had concluded would be an adventure. I had decided that I would be elegantly fashionable, but not too much: just enough to be ready to tackle any social situation.
I hadn't even entered the building cited on the invitation when a lady abruptly opened the door.
"Yes, that's me."
"Follow me, please. Where is your car?" she asked.
"Right around the corner," I replied.
"Let's take it."
I had an old British convertible that I had bought for a good price in an auction and that I would only take out on occasions. I saw a quick smile briefly break her serious mask when she saw the vehicle.
"I like these older cars," I added in an attempt to break the ice. "You really feel the road and experience sensations that you can no longer have when you drive today's high tech cocoon cars."
"Sure," she responded without any interest.
"May I know where we are going?"
"I can't tell you, but be patient and in a few moments you'll know all about it."
"How about giving me a clue?"
"I wish I could, but I can't. Please, be patient."
This time, her voice was slightly supplicating. It may be cliche, but I can't resist an imploring pretty woman. So, I stopped short of grilling her and accepted my fate.
I may have never told this to any one before, but a great advantage to driving a low convertible sports car. Even an antique like mine is not just the sensations you're getting from driving - when the weather is amicable - but it's also that the compression of space in the cabin, the low seats, and the stick shift just inches away from your passenger are all factors that could play to your advantage, if you're riding with a lady you are courting. By letting your hand slide "inadvertently" to the side of the stick shift - or miss it as you are twisting your body to negotiate a narrow turn, you initiate physical contact and test her reaction. If you have - as I have - acquired some expertise in this field through the years, you can get a pretty good feel of where you stand on her "likeability" scale based on how she reacts?
I didn't feel like using any of what I just revealed. I didn't know where she was taking me, and whether it's one of those Russian mafia deals where they use pretty girls to hook up some naive guys and then blackmail them for the rest of their lives with compromising pictures. But I am not married, so nobody cares with whom I hook up.
My guide avoided looking at me and directed me from street to street, from light to light, without giving me any further insight as to the target location. After just a few minutes of blindfolded ride, we arrived at our destination.
"Here we are; that's the building seventy-seven forty-four," she indicated. "Go up to the third floor."
"Left or right?" I asked.
"There is only a red door."
"All right; thank you, Miss?. I am sorry; I did not get your name?"
"You have a good evening. And, by the way, nice car!"
That was unexpected. I knew she would not give me her name, but her admission that she liked my car came as a surprise. I think she liked me. Or, maybe I am being naive and selfindulgent. The door was Japanese red. A brunette with striking good looks opened the door. What's with these babes? I wondered. Is this a modeling agency or some kind of preview staged for some happy few fashionistas to which I am invited by mistake?
The space was empty: no furniture and nothing on the walls. Only the floor, with its nice mosaic tiles of Greco-Roman theme, created some liveliness in an otherwise gloomy environment. My guide was not exactly beaming from excessive joy either, but I had gotten used to that already and I didn't mind.
A "welcome" cheered me as I entered a large room where two gentlemen sat on the bare floor. This was the first greeting with some real warmth in it that I had heard since the beginning of this evening, while I was bounced from one robotic guide to another cold hostess. The gentleman was possibly in his sixties, a bit obese, wearing a three-piece dark suit?unexpectedly covered by a Jelabah. The other person was younger and definitely slimmer, but dressed almost similarly - with the Jelabah. What kind of eccentric fellows am I dealing with? I wasn't really afraid but I wasn't sure where I had landed. The two men look pretty harmless.
"So, what's this invitation about: a romantic Bedouin dinner on the deserted office floor?" I asked. "Forgive me, but I could not resist." Both laughed politely.
"Allow me to introduce myself: I am Hector Elias Shumington III. And here is my good friend: the respectable Dr. Benvenisto Necromonti."
We shook hands and I sat on the bare floor. When I dressed classic chic to suit any social occasion, I hadn't exactly in mind this kind of indoor picnic. But then again, as the saying goes, when in Casablanca, do as the... Or maybe was it something slightly different? I can't remember.
"You may be wondering," started Shumington, "why we have brought you in here. But before that, I would like to apologize for the mystery that has had to envelop your visit. All Iterrorist activities. We believe we are onto something very important, which, if not prevented, could have catastrophic consequences. In your books, you have addressed the subject long before anybody else. Our analysts have meticulously studied both your professional and private lives - to an extent you can hardly imagine - and, out of several potential candidates, they have concluded that you are best qualified for this task."
"I am flattered, but is this a joke? Is this a prank? Come on, gentlemen, wherever you are hiding, come on out. I got it. It was wonderfully planned. Now, come on out and let's celebrate your revenge. Dinner is on me." I scanned the room looking for a door to open and see my friends jump out laughing. "You too, gentlemen, you were great. I don't know which talent agency they've hired you from, but give me your cards because I may need your services one of these days: I am an inveterate prankster myself."
"Sir, this is serious business. Many lives are at stake," Necromonti said with his marked Italian accent, a bit offended by my reaction.
Shumington was not laughing. Necromonti was consternated. Looking at their faces, I realized that either I was wrong or these guys were very good. So, I decided to go along with their story and let it unfold.
"Okay, my apologies. Continue, per favore, dottore."
"Grazie; what was I saying?" Necromonti was trying to recover from a moment of confusion. "Oh, yes? that we picked you to help us track and neutralize a looming danger. We have received indications that a group of individuals somewhere, somehow, are preparing to hit. But we don't know where, when and how."
"You sound like George W. Bush and the Iraqi WMDs."
I can tell you is that we didn't have any choice; they were simple security measures for your own safety."
"Yes, I am still clueless," I said, faking self-confidence.
"But I am here and I am listening."
"How can I phrase this?" Shumington's face expressed intense cogitation while Dr. Necromonti either stared at the floor or at Shumington, obviously boiling with impatience, "?we need your help."
This being said, what did they need my help for? What do I know or what do I do that can help them? I do ‘consultant on international affairs' for a living. I sell my pseudo-expertise to big businesses and political organizations alike. I also write a book and some articles from time to time, just to stay in sight. I know: these guys have just discovered the Jelabah and want to launch the trend in the US, but don't know how to approach the Moroccan Government to get export licenses and need my help to teach them how to court Rabat with cultural sensitivity in mind...
"How can I help you?" I said.
"This is where it becomes a bit complicated," Shumington said.
Necromonti took over. "We are here on a mission to convince you to help us save the planet from a potentially deadly danger."
"Come on; give me a break!" These guys, with their three-piece suits and their Jelabahs, sitting on the floor of an empty office, couldn't expect me to buy into these cheesy lines.
"I know; please, perdone our methods," Necromonti said.
"But the truth is that you are the person we need to conduct this mission."
"What mission?" I asked with some irritation.
"Be patient, per favore," Necromonti said. "We work for an international agency that fights unconventional crime and We have some trails to follow God knows where -- actually, allow me to correct: Hell knows where would be more appropriate. It would take someone like you to figure it out."
"I am no James Bond. This is a job for the CIA, the FSB, the MI5, the Mossad, the Mukhaberat, or even La Piscine, and definitely not for me. The only thing that I see in my profile, that may have caught your attention, is the word international; other than that, I am just a cerebral - a pathetic intellectual. I analyze others' actions and minds and theorize and gloze about them and sell the result to make a living. Besides, I make it a point of ethics not to get involved with any of the subjects of my studies."
"We have done our homework," Shumington said, "and we know a lot about you - probably more than you would want us to know. But, since you asked, the one thing that qualifies you more than the other competitors is your sense of instinct, your aura. You guess and subodorate things like no other can."
"Thank you." I was indeed flattered by the compliment.
"I am not flattering you," Shumington said. "You had guessed years ago that some dangerous minds could use the collapse of the Soviet-Union to acquire bio-weapons to harm people?"
"I recall how my publisher laughed at me and the media dismissed it as ‘unimaginably fantasist,' preferring to put the emphasis on the collection and destruction of nuclear warheads only."
"Well, Sir, I think that what we are on right now is exactly that or something similar. But we are not sure, and this is why we need you."
"All I had done was to mention the eventuality. Perhaps it was a chapter in the book?"
"Let us not diminish the value of your premonition," Necromonti said, as if my expression of realistic modesty was going to cost him some disappointment.
"Unconventional terrorism. The UN has tasked Interpol and Interpol has tasked us and?"
"That's a pretty heavy burden," I commented.
"Yes, especially if you consider that now we count on you."
"I am not joking, Mr. Haftemizan," Shumington said. "If you don't help us on this case, we are toast and probably half of the planet as well."
"Are you ****ing kidding me? You pick me out of nowhere and seat me on the floor with your, your?Jelabahs and tell me that if I don't help out, half of Humanity will perish? There is no way I am going to take this kind of responsibility. Ciao, dottore Necromonti and a riverderci, Mr. Shumington. I wish you good luck!"
"I understand your ire," Shumington said. "We're all irritated by the enormity of the task, but think about its nobility. Think about the lives that we are helping to save. And besides, we are a team; you are not alone."
"Think of the Musketeers," Necromonti said, lifting his hands to the sky. "We are the world's new Musketeers." Necromonti's literary image struck a cord within me. This comparison gave me a more concrete image of what I was asked to do. I would be chasing the Cardinal's bad guys, while ending up in bed with some gorgeous ladies dressed in superb gowns with more laces than I would have the patience to untie? Yes; now, we are talking? I was ready to serve Humanity.
"All right, I'm in. I apologize for my outburst. You have to admit that this is not a normal situation for me. I am usually much more guarded than that in my reaction."
"Dr. Necromonti is absolutely right; do not sell yourself short. You had the sense of it before anybody else: it was the work of a genius."
"Well, if you put it that way? then, I guess maybe I had an intuition that probably was ahead of its time," I said, playing it falsely modest. I haven't had these kinds of compliments in years. "Forgive my insistence, but I still don't understand how in practice I can help you. You know, I have a job to do, I have clients who count on my analysis, I have deliverables, and tutti quanti..."
"We know all that," Shumington said, almost offended that I was underestimating their professionalism. "As I told you, we did our homework before we finally decided to bring you here."
"You are going to announce that you're taking a sabbatical to research your new book. Besides, this is a terrific idea for your cover."
"And what about my clients: they really depend on me? I can't just close the doors and let them down like this?I would lose them forever. It took me years to earn their trust."
"We know that and we know there is no easy solution. This is why we thought that while you would have to reschedule the type of commitments that require your presence, for the rest - i.e. reports and other written analyses - your staff of assistants will take care of it in your absence."
"I don't have a ‘staff of assistants.' The only assistant I have is wired, has buttons and is sitting on my desk, pitifully motionless."
"We know that, Mr. Haftemizan. This is something we'll be taking care of. And as for the analysts, I can guarantee you that they are the best the market can offer. If you help us, we won't spare any effort to help you keep your activities up and running in your absence. I have the authority to give you absolute assurance in this regard."
These Jelabah-wearing gentlemen were committed to hire me at all cost and had foreseen all possible scenarios. There was not much more that I could do to slip away from their grip. But before I made any commitment, I needed some assurance that this was not some type of phony scam.
"Well, gentlemen, you got me. I am in, but I need you to show me something more than your serious faces to convince me of the authenticity of your? whatever it is you are doing."
Shumington smiled. He had obviously foreseen this one, too. He retrieved a laptop from the bag next to him and turned it on.
"Here, Sir; this is Interpol's highly secure website? and here is the link to Erebus. As you can see, I've been able to access it, which, I would hope, is giving you confidence that we are in serious business here."
"So, you work for Interpol?"
"I've been working there for many years, but Dr. Necromonti is new. He jumped on board - a little bit like you - not so long ago."
"You mentioned ‘Airbus'? Is that a code name for something?"
"It's EREBUS," corrected Necromonti, as if I should have known better."Erebus is the name of our project. It's a small project in terms of the number of people involved -- as you well know, only quality matters -- but it's of vital importance. Only a very select number of people know of its existence. Our mission is to fight.
"We understand," Shumington said. "And, believe it or not, when our big boss personally assigned me to this task, I had the same kind of reaction or probably worse."
Judging from his round face and jovial expression, despite the seriousness of the situation, one wouldn't expect Hector Elias Shumington III -- what a tediously long name - to explode into a violent outburst. But then again, you can never know. There is a saying, somewhere in the world - I can't remember where - that warns us to ‘beware of the sleepy water.' To the contrary, one could expect this kind of irritability from Necromonti. His lean, long and somewhat marked face gave him an appearance of worried seriousness. Necromonti's facial features were so expressive that he did not need to raise his voice to express his discontent; a slight convergent movement of his eyebrows and everyone would get the message. He had tragedy written all over his face. ____________________________